Israel and Scripture: Lighting the Way for the Nations (SBD 7)

[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]

God called Israel to guide the nations and entrusted her with the oracles of God.

When God called Abraham he intended to create a nation that would bless all nations. Rather than destroying humanity at the Tower of Babel, God chose to begin anew with a new Adam. God chose Abraham through whom God created Israel and thus ultimately chose Jesus, the second Adam of the human race.

Israel as the Image of God

Israel existed as a remnant among the nations. “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). The prospects for humanity looked bleak at the end of Genesis 11 but God elected Israel as a nation among the peoples of the earth in which to reveal divine mercy and glory. With Israel God created anew, just as with Noah and just as in the beginning with adam.

God invested in Israel as a showcase of wisdom and understanding, a display of divine glory and righteousness. The Torah was a witness to the nations, and if Israel lived by its guidance the nations would praise them: “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6).

Israel was designed as the new image of God in the world, a communal testimony to God’s intent for the whole of creation. Israel was supposed to be what adam was in the beginning. They were intended as a people who represent God in the world and a people among whom God could live in community.

Israel did not exist as an end in itself but was a servant to the nations. The “Great Commission of the Old Testament” underscores that Israel had a missional purpose—the nation was a “light for the Gentiles” and appointed to “bring [God’s] salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Israel existed to bless other nations—not simply as the means to the Messiah, but as a witness to the holy love of God for the world.

Yet Israel hardened its heart (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:6). Instead of participating in God’s mission, Israel fell and progressively repeated the cycle of creation and fall throughout its history (e.g., Judges). Humanity, even among blessed Israel, was caught in the ruling power of evil.

Divine Gifts to Israel

Despite Israel’s failure to image God as a nation, they nevertheless experience the merciful presence of God in their midst. God gave Israel gifts which were not present among other nations in the world. That does not mean that God disinterested or neglectful of other nations (e.g., Jonah) but that God had chosen Israel as a special vessel of his mercy to the nations with unique graces to encourage their mission.

Paul summarizes these gifts in Romans 9:4-5. The list is worth quoting: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

The gifts embody the redemptive and covenantal presence of God within Israel. They are adopted children of the Creator God and they experience the glory presence of the God who dwells among them. They are the covenant people of God (e.g., Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) and the Torah guides them in that relationship. They know the joy of temple worship with its Levitical liturgy that embodies the presence of God among the people and they live in hope under the promises of God (especially the promise of the Messiah). These are the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They are God’s covenant people, an elect, holy nation, created to image God in the world.

Paul concludes his gift list with a Christological doxology. The Messiah has now come through Israel. The Messiah is a participant in these gifts, but he is more. God’s anointed one is also praised as God. The God who entered into covenant with Israel and dwelt among them has come in Jesus to redeem the people from their sins and to open the gates for the Gentiles to also experience the gifts of God. Those who were once strangers to the covenant are now included (Ephesians 2:11-12).

The Development of Scripture

Though Paul does not mention this gift in Romans 9, he had earlier noted that Israel was entrusted with “the very words of God” (Romans 3:2, NIV). They were the keepers of the record of God’s mighty acts among the nations and in Israel.

Scripture does not “drop out of the sky.” On the contrary, the collection of holy writings called “Scripture” (writings) grows and develops over time within the course of Israel’s history. Scripture is produced as part of the process of redemptive (salvation) history and intimately connected to their status as a covenant nation.

God used covenantal messengers (including editors during the inscripturation process) to guide Israel in their life as the covenant people of God (cf. Jeremiah 7:25-26; Nehemiah 9:29-30). The Torah provided the foundational covenant history (e.g., Exodus) and covenantal instruction (e.g., Deuteronomy). Prophets called people to faithful obedience to the covenant, warned Israel of its failures, and encouraged Israel with hopeful promises (Hosea 4:1-3; Micah 6:1-8; Isaiah 40). Prophets, among others, recorded covenantal histories that bore witness to the history of God’s relationship with Israel (e.g., 1 Chronicles 29:29; 2 Chronicles 33:19). The singers and sages of Israel provided liturgy and wisdom for life in Israel (Psalms, Proverbs).

The canon of holy writings emerged throughout the history of Israel as a way of grounding Israel in its past, guiding it in the present, and providing hope for the future. They are bound up with Israel’s history and Israel’s status as the covenant people of God. The Scriptures are God’s unique gift to Israel and through Israel to the nations.

These are the “holy Scriptures” which Paul commended to Timothy as “able to” make him “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” These are the texts that Paul describes as “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:12-17; ESV).

The Function of Scripture

Scripture, in general, serves a covenantal function which is expressed through diverse genres and occasions. Scripture essentially administers the divine covenant with God’s people and is thus normative for how God’s people live in covenant with God in the different cultures and situations in which the people Scripture addresses lived.

Scripture bears witness to, interprets and applies the saving work of God in Israel and, climatically, in Jesus to the people of God. It narrates the redemptive work of God in Christ, interprets that work for us, and applies its meaning and significance to its original hearers. Though Scripture was written to those who received it in the past, it was also written for believers in coming centuries.

The nature of Scripture is covenantal. As covenant people, we are guided by the covenant witness of Scripture. Scripture is neither simply a love letter nor is it a legal constitution for the postivistic construction of “rules”–it is a covenant. As covenant, it has both regulatory and relational functions. It bears witness to God’s acts of redemptive love and calls us into relationship with him. It instructs and guides the people of God how to live in communion with him; it tells us how to live out our identity as the images (representative) of God in the world. The authors of Scripture, God’s covenantal messengers, interpret the meaning of God’s saving work and apply it to the lives of their original readers.

This witness, as we have it now in the whole of the prophetic and apostolic witness, is rooted in the saving acts of God that inaugurates a new creation—one that is already, but not yet. Jesus himself is the witness to God’s saving work and the embodiment of the covenantal principles that shape all service to God. Jesus, as incarnate God, is the image of God, the true Israel, the true human. He is the fundamental pattern for our life before God.

Scripture—from the Hebrew Scriptures to the Gospels to the Epistles—bears witness to Jesus as our pattern. He is the mediator of the covenant by which we draw near to and live in communion with God.

God acted in Christ to redeem the world and created a new community (which is actually a restoration of Israel as Luke-Acts emphasizes). This new community was led by God’s covenantal messengers (the apostles). They instructed the early church in the covenant, both orally and in written form. These teachings, as norms, were rooted in God’s covenantal acts in Christ. The norm (or canon) is God’s work in Jesus; the world newly created through the cross of Jesus (Galatians 6:14-16). The church is left with the apostolic writings, the covenantal writings of the apostles, which bear witness to this act of God in Jesus. They constitute covenant documents, added to the covenantal witness of the Hebrew Scriptures, which guide the church. They contain both the record of God’s covenantal acts and the covenantal interpretation of those acts by the apostles (cf. Ephesians 3:1-6).

Moreover, these apostolic documents are applications of the work of God in Christ to the people of God. They witness to God’s acts, interpret them, and apply them. No other interpretation is as authoritative as that of the apostles. This is God’s witness through the apostles. The early church recognized the foundational, unrepeatable and fixed nature of that witness, as it testified to the acts of God in Christ and their meaning for the new community founded on those acts. The early church found itself bound by these documents as the rule of God through apostolic witness. The contemporary church is bound by these documents just as the early church was and it is interpreted through the lens of the canon (rule) that is Jesus himself.

Scripture, both Hebrew and Greek, is the practical application of theology in specific situations. Through its application we see the theology. Now, as ministers of the covenant, we take the same theology and apply it to our present situations. Consequently, what we really do is not so much apply Scripture but apply the theology that Scripture teaches. Thus, the task of “restoration”  is not the reproduction of the historic practice of the early church but the reapplication of its theology in a new context—our context. Our task is embody the life of Jesus in the present both as communities and individuals of faith, that is, to live within the narrative of Christian (belonging to Jesus) identity.

Scripture guides believers in knowing the story, understanding its meaning, and embodying it in the present.

So What?

The Scriptures are unique texts whose witness is divine in origin.  The witness and interpretation of Scripture is not ultimately a human one, but it is a divine interpretation of God’s own acts in history. The message of Scripture, though it comes to us in human langauge, written by humans and for humans, originates in the mind of God and is produced through God’s own breath.

The Scriptures are the “norming norm” of the Christian faith. Scripture is our normative guide for living in covenant relationship with God. As a norm, it functions authoritatively within the community of faith and provides a trustworthy message. This norm, however, is not an isolated word but a word given in the context of God’s historic acts in Christ (a Christological canon) which the church has confessed from the beginning (e.g., regula fidei). or “canon of truth”

The Scriptures communicate a true message of salvation. It is a medium of revelation, and through Scripture we learn about the work of God in Israel’s history. Scripture is a divine witness to God’s saving work, the only place where one finds God’s own interpretation of his saving acts in Israel and the only place where one finds God’s covenantal messengers applying God’s message to the people of God.

3 Responses to “Israel and Scripture: Lighting the Way for the Nations (SBD 7)”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    would you review n.t. wright’s new book for us?
    roman. 3:25to ROM 3:26
    to me is the break point on the issue of justification
    through faith.
    A concept to me, that is important to answering that question….
    and a hinge point in putting together Romans 3.20-31in making subjective gender a coherent contextual concept to grasp.

    now then.
    john mark,
    if teaching a person Christ
    how can one teach (man or plan)
    without teaching about the god in the story of faith
    which brings us to a belief in god first that will confirm the gospel of Christ which brings us to an obedient faith.
    in other words faith in the old scriptures which tell men about god and his work with his chosen nation
    as an integral part in the scheme of redemption,which brings a person to God’s foretold gospel the power of God UNTO(for the purpose of) salvation ROM 1.17

    do you not think that a belief in the old covenant taught properly brings one to faith in GOD.#.21-22 and then or but now the righteous of god is manifested being witnessed by the law and the prophets… through through the faithfulness of Jesus for all those who believe…redemp found in Christ.the new creation of gods work
    blessings all

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I will read Wright’s book and perhaps review it, but that will have to wait till the middle of the summer. His book does not even come out until sometime in June.

      The Hebrew Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ, so Paul told Timothy. The faith of Israel teaches us much about God…without a doubt to my mind.

  2.   rich constant Says:

    “story of faith”rom.3:3-4
    sorry bout that


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